Harnessing Wind Energy in Eritrea

Berkeley Lab scientists are helping Eritrea (population 4.5 million, average annual income $250 per person) embark on a $3.8 million pilot project to determine whether energy for the nation can be derived from wind-powered turbines. Eritrea, an African nation that won its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, is intent upon generating as much as 50 percent of the nation’s grid electricity via wind power.

Wind is the least of the challenges. “It’s a wind resource that is better than most wind resources in the U.S.,” says Robert Van Buskirk, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), which conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California. “The barriers are mostly technical. We need to determine how to develop sustainable contracts between the people of Eritrea, companies that develop wind energy systems, and technical advisers,” says Van Buskirk. “Getting these worlds to meet in an economically feasible way is difficult.” The United Nations and an international consortium of donors, the Global Environmental Facility, funds half of the project, while the Eritrean government provides the other half. The initial phase calls for eight wind energy systems in six villages. These wind turbines will be used to pump irrigation water, provide electricity for everyday use such as lighting and making ice, and power desalinization plants that provide fresh drinking water to seaside fishing villages. Engineers will build a multi-turbine wind-park that feeds into the electricity grid of the southern port town of Assab. Van Buskirk has helped several Eritrean students earn Master’s degrees in meteorology from San Jose State University. Two of these former students have recently developed computer simulations that assess the wind resources of Eritrea’s highlands and southeastern coast. “It’s an extreme case study in technology diffusion. We start with a place that is a world research leader like Berkeley Lab, and go to a place that is the largest socioeconomic distance from that, which is rural Africa,” says Van Buskirk. “The difficult part is learning how to adapt technologies to a socioeconomic world far removed from our everyday life. We need to create a context in which people can sustain efficient energy systems over the long term. And in terms of evaluating and creating long term sustainability, we find that the villagers, rather than the scientists, are the real experts.”
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